Apple's iPad could make it the king of old media, arbiter of taste and technology alike. So magazines and newspapers have begun a series of countermoves that could turn the quietest dogfight in media into the most vicious.
In one sense, the iPad's January unveiling was a nerd climax, a landmark for obsessive gadget freaks. But in another it was one in a series of Apple chess movies that will determine how much influence the company wields over the future of magazines and newspapers. If the tablet device and Apple's associated online shops become popular enough, the company could have a chokehold over publishing technology and content itself. It could become as central to the future of print media as it has become to the future of music, where Apple's iTunes Store dominates online sales. And it could use that position to promote its preferred technologies over those of rivals, most notably Adobe's Flash animation software, now ubiquitous on websites.
But Apple is but one player in this game; old media are making moves of their own. Apple's refusal to work with Adobe, whose software is central to most art departments, makes publishers uneasy. And the old media are none too comfortable with Apple reviewing their content and applications for approval, or with the prospect of one company potentially controlling the future of print. So they're taking steps to preserve their independence. It scarcely hurts that these steps promise to save loads of money in comparison with the path Apple is most enthusiastic about; magazines and newspapers are hardly swimming in surplus money these days.
In short, there's a quiet dogfight going on between Apple and its prospective media partners over the future of the iPad. It's not open warfare; it's the sort of quiet maneuvering you'd expect from parties who, on the one hand, need to cooperate but, on the other, can't stop competing. We've outlined some of the maneuvering below:
Apple move: Banishing Flash. One of Apple's most prominent maneuvers was its decision to exclude Adobe's Flash animation technology from the iPad, as with the iPhone before it. When CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the tablet device in January, it had no support for Flash, and none is likely forthcoming: in an iPad-related meeting with Wall Street Journal editors, Jobs trashed Flash as unstable and unsecure, and said it would be "trivial" for the newspaper to dispense with it in preparation for the Apple tablet.
Publisher countermove: Baking Flash into apps. The publishers aren't just going to flush their Flash investment. It's massive; since our post about Jobs' Flash rant at the Journal, we've received emails from media types defending the Adobe software.
Luckily, Adobe has some little-talked-about software it calls Packager for iPhone. Set for wide release some time in the second quarter, the packager compiles Flash code down to code that will run natively on the iPhone. In simpler terms, it converts Flash code into iPhone code.
Will Apple allow this? Adobe's Jeremy Clark told us it already has:
iPhone applications built with Flash Platform tools are compiled into standard, native iPhone executable packages and no runtime interpreter is necessary to run the application. Over 30 Applications built using the [pre-release] Flash Packager for iPhone have already been accepted in the iPhone app store so we're confident that our method fits within the rules of the iPhone App Store.
Wired has been working with Adobe, and used Adobe Air to power the demonstration tablet edition featured in its recent video "Wired Magazine on the iPad." Wired is probably hoping, then, to use an iPad version of Adobe's Flash Packager to get its content onto the Apple tablet. Wired could design its e-magazine in Flash, export using Adobe's tool, and distribute through the iPad App Store. As Editor Chris Anderson told us,
It's fair to say that Wired's preferred path (indeed, the one we're on) is cross platform, starting with the Adobe authoring tools we already use every day to put out the print magazine (InDesign, etc).
How that emerges in e-reader form depends on the platform—sometimes it's a straight save as Adobe Air, sometimes it requires going through a cross-compiler tool. But the ultimate aim is create once, read
everywhere, with all the fine-grained design flexibility we have in print combined with the new interactive power of tablets.
The only complication is performance: The iPad's Apple A4 processor is weaker than those in most personal computers, so Wired will have to be especially careful with its Flash programming.
Apple move: iStore for magazines and newspapers. Although no one will go on record, we're told that Apple's working on its own built-in iPad store for magazine and newspaper content — a sort of "iNewsstand" to complement iBooks, the bookstore, and iTunes, the music store. It's a predictable move, the most logical and consumer-friendly way to distribute e-magazines and e-papers via the iPad.
Without a central application for managing subscriptions to perdiodicals, after all, users will end up accumulating a messy jungle of magazine and newspaper "apps" on their iPads, each requiring a separate installation and bringing to the table its own user interface quirks.
Publisher countermove: Sticking to apps. There's no telling how publishers will respond to Apple's iMagazine stand because it doesn't exist yet; pricing, interface, format, revenue split and conent rules are still unknown. But the content creators do have one bit of leverage: If they don't like Apple's terms, they can threaten to keep selling standalone apps through the App Store. No one publication has as much invested in the iPad user experience as Apple, after all, so why should the publishers care if their apps clutter up the device?
Apple move: Censoring content. Apple is already censoring content on iPhone apps, but it's sending mixed messages: The company banished thousands of apps containing "sexually arousing content" like women in bikinis while letting the Playboy and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition apps stick around. It seems likely Apple will have to get more consistent and clear with the rules on the iPad, if only to save itself from headaches. Magazines and newspapers seem to be flocking to the device in large numbers, and their apps promise to be chock full of racy pictures, racy advertisements and even racy PDF copies of the print edition (horror!). The clearer Apple can be up front, the fewer fights it will have with publishers.
If it keeps the rules for iPad app content especially restrictive, Apple will have leverage to encourage magazines to distribute through its own iPad periodicals store. Just allow more free expression in the magazine/newspaper store than in the app marketplace.
Publisher countermove: Retreat to the Web. Apple can set all the rules it wants for content distributed through its own stores. But no one says publishers have to be in Apple's store in the first place. If Apple's policies prove too restrictive — or, worse, too hard to predict — publishers can simply publish whatever they want on iPad-optimized versions of their websites. NPR has already developed such a site to filter out Flash content for iPad users; racier publishers could produce iPad sites to preserve their freedom of expression. In fact, Apple's PastryKit framework allows publishers to come awfully close to duplicating the iPhone/iPad interface in a Web app.
Apple move: Banning apps with Flash baked in. Steve Jobs really seems to detest Flash. So past might not be prologue: Just because Apple allowed onto the iPhone 30 apps cross-compiled with Adobe's Flash Packager (see above) doesn't mean the company will allow cross-compiled Flash apps in the future.
In fact, Wired's parent company Condé Nast seems worried about Apple banning such apps. CEO Chuck Townsend told Peter Kafka of All Things D he is uneasy developing complex iPad editions like Wired's at other titles, due to Apple's antipathy toward Flash. So he's porting other magazines to the iPad using a less ambitious strategy of simply duplicating print pages within the app. That approach would require far less Flash coding, and thus there would be far less lost if Apple banned the technology used in Flash Packager.
Publisher countermove: Rally the geeks. Flash Packager isn't the only tool that takes unsupported code and turns it into native iPhone/iPad software; Novell's MonoTouch pulls off a similar trick by pre-compiling programs from the Mono programming framework. There are already games in the app store pre-compiled from a Mono game platform, in fact. If Apple tried to ban Wired's tablet edition and the other Flash Packager apps, it would have to try and explain why MonoTouch apps aren't banned, too. If Apple did ban MonoTouch apps on top of Flash Packager amps, it will amount to demolishing not one but two major avenues for iPhone and iPad apps. Fewer apps means less energy and excitement around the Apple products.
If outmaneuvering Apple sounds like an increasingly technical endeavor, that's because it is. But if old-line publishers want to have any hope at exploiting Steve Jobs' technologies without getting unduly exploited in turn, they should have started reading up on such geeky matters months ago.